BC — before cruise ships. It’s a subject hotly contested by many “experts,” who aren’t necessarily experts.
First, let me say, my name is Lee Starling, though most people know me as “Lobster Lee.”
I am a commercial diver for lobster and fish. I also worked on the harbor’s dredge research dive team, measuring silt and turbidity at 26 locations 3 times a week for two years from Calda Channel to Eastern Dry Rocks. During the study, silt and turbidity were found to be extremely localized and did not extend outside of the turning basin.
There was absolutely no effect on the reef from the dredge or cruise ship activity. This is backed by solid data.
The harbor was originally only 15 feet deep before dredging in the 1890s created Wisteria Island and Sunset Key, as they’re now known.
Northwest Channel was the original deep-water channel for Key West and gave a shortcut for passage to Tampa and Gulf ports. The north end was also dredged and the jetty stabilized the shifting sand entrance. Sigsbee, Fleming and Demolition keys are also fill lands from the dredge in the 1940s.
I am a methodical, scientifically based diver. Diving the harbor is a time-sensitive race ahead of high-velocity tides. It’s a four-hour cycle of constant movement, based on the moon position and currents.
I would not dive in such a difficult place if it did not consistently produce lobster, hogfish, snapper and grouper. Boats’ shadows and engines roar overhead while a carpet of sea fans, whips, grass and corals grow below the surface. At Mallory and the Mole, corals were found to be so healthy, robust and resilient that the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary chose them for propagation for coral outplanting efforts.
The harbor was not cleaner before, during or now after, cruise ships. A ship does not have the capacity to disturb miles of sea bottom.
Our water clarity is determined by currents and eddies from the Gulf Stream and water from upstream near the mainland. This can be proved by using ROFFS satellite imaging archives, which is free, although I pay for daily imaging that is updated four times a day. There is no change in overall water clarity during ship dockage. I have dived in the dreaded plume. If it were so bad, one would think I would get out of the water, but the lobsters don’t mind, so neither do I.
Some blame cruise ships for the lack of tarpon, but this is false. Before the water flow was diverted from the Everglades, massive schools of squid preceded the tarpon migration. From the Marquesa Keys to Key West Harbor, squid migrated and were followed by enormous schools of tarpon. This ended when the water flow changed. The tarpon followed the squid elsewhere.
Why do the opponents of cruise ships lack this knowledge? They have never dived in the harbor. How can you be an expert when you have never experienced it, worked in it or studied it? They are guessers at best. They guess at what is there from the surface, from a dock, from a boat.
The harbor is a healthy, richly populated ecosystem. I wouldn’t keep going back if it wasn’t. So. don’t blame your lack of fishing skills on cruise ships and imagined sandstorms underwater from giant propellers. It isn’t happening.
Lee Starling, F/V Antares